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Last Updated on 08/05/2021

Before I sat down to write this post, I was prepared to write about the benefits of carbon offsetting when we travel. However, I quickly found that it was a controversial subject in the sustainable travel community.

Carbon offsetting is marketed as a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card for our impact on climate change. It’s a tool often used by aviation companies to alleviate our guilt about racking up too many air miles. All we need to do is calculate our carbon emissions, convert it into a monetary value and donate it to a good climate change-tackling cause. It seems simple enough but does it really work? 

What is carbon offsetting? 

Image of the inside of an airport which links to the carbon footprint that air-travel has on the planet.

Carbon offsetting is a popular scheme that encourages you to offset your carbon footprint by donating to charitable projects that work to tackle environmental issues such as deforestation, unclean water and energy inefficiency in poorer communities.

Often marketed towards travellers and frequent flyers, it offers us the chance to be carbon neutral every time we go on holiday. It seems like the perfect solution to the conundrum we travellers are increasingly faced with: to travel and contribute to climate change or to not travel and destroy our wanderlust dreams forever?

However, there has been some debate on the efficiency of carbon offsetting and whether it makes a difference at all. The overwhelming consensus is that it doesn’t. Not at the rate we need it to anyway. 

READ MORE: Climate Change and Travel: Is It Time to Change Our Flying Habits?

Pros and cons of carbon offsetting 

Pros

Image of the top of a green jungle in Thailand with fog in the background which carbon offsetting can contribute towards protecting.

Before we disregard carbon offsetting completely, it’s worth noting that it’s not all doom and gloom. UN Environment says that offset schemes give undeniable support to vital projects that help combat climate change. These are: 

  • Reforestation projects. 
  • The protection of forests and peatlands that hold and absorb carbon.
  • Projects that help improve energy efficiency in poor communities. 
  • Renewable energy schemes.

UN Environment supports carbon offsetting as a temporary measure but it doesn’t recommend using it to curb climate change. If we really want to make a difference then decarbonisation is the key. 

READ MORE: Discover Borneo: ‘The Lungs of the World’

Cons 

A power plant at sunset sending clouds of dark smoke into the sky to show carbon emissions and how little carbon offsetting does to change this.

The negative effects of carbon offsetting are a lot more concerning:

  • Most carbon offsetting schemes are done by for-profits, not charities and Certified Emissions Reduction calculated that on average, only about 30% of the donations actually make it to the projects. The rest goes to overhead, verification costs and project developer’s profits. 
  • A 2017 study by the European Commission found that 85% of offset projects under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism hadn’t reduced carbon emissions at all. 
  • Tree-planting is a popular offset scheme because trees absorb carbon. However, carbon has a long lifespan whereas trees are more temporary and have limited storage. Offsetting carbon into trees is a big risk because they have to be there for centuries to be effective. This is not something that can be guaranteed in the face of deforestation, wildfires and environmental damage. The amount of carbon produced also far outweighs the amount the trees can absorb. This is not to say that planting trees is bad (far from it!), it just can’t be used as a valid and quantifiable way to reduce our carbon footprint. 
  • Carbon offsetting doesn’t reduce the incentive to decrease emissions or decarbonise air-travel. It appears to be a quick-fix guilt-appeasing solution but it doesn’t encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint because they think they don’t need to. 

Responsible Travel argues that carbon offsetting is not a measure that travellers should be taking because donating to these schemes shifts the baton of responsibility onto other people. You’re essentially paying other people to deal with your environmental impact for you.

Donating our carbon offsets to charities working with communities in the developing world suggests that we’re paying for them to become more energy efficient so that we don’t have to. This is not a healthy model we should perpetuate as the wealthy become exempt from accountability. 

READ MORE: No-Fly Holidays: London to Barcelona by Bus (Review)

How to offset your emissions

Image of a laptop and calculator to demonstrate calculating your carbon emissions for carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting promotes a moral responsibility to reduce your carbon emissions by becoming carbon neutral. This works by turning your carbon footprint into a monetary value which you can donate to a cause. Alternatively, you can give what you can afford, although this is no longer considered offsetting. Most carbon offsetting companies have a handy calculator on their website to help you work out tour offsets based on the carbon prices on the market. 

READ MORE: 10 of the Best Tour Operators in the World

5 of the best carbon offsetting schemes 

Image of a train by the sea to show that travellers should avoid air-travel rather than carbon offsetting.

The best way to tackle your carbon footprint is to avoid or reduce. Carbon offsetting should be considered a last resort when there’s nothing else you can do. Travellers should consider taking longer holidays and flying less where possible. Take the train instead of domestic flights and use public transport instead of the car. If you do feel guilty about your carbon emissions and want to help out, here are 5 amazing NGOs to support. Bear in mind that 4 out of 5 are not official offsets:

READ MORE: The 5 Best Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint While Travelling

1. Red Cross

Affects of a hurricane by the sea with trees being blown by the wind.

The Red Cross can’t promise to cut a certain amount of emissions but it’s still a fantastic option because it’s an international organisation dedicated to providing relief for disaster victims all over the world. Climate change is the biggest existential threat to our planet. Cyclones, hurricanes, floods and wildfires are becoming more frequent as we’re faced with increasing weather extremities. The Red Cross offers crucial support to climate refugees and those suffering the most. 

2. Doctors Without Borders 

Red helicopter in sky with snowy mountains behind for emergency first aid.

Similar to the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders provide invaluable disaster relief across the globe. This independent organisation operates in 65 countries and gives fast emergency medical aid to those who need it most. They don’t rely on government or institutional funding and they act without discrimination. Usually the first on the scene when disaster strikes, Doctors Without Borders are an increasingly valuable asset to a world undergoing climate change. 

3. Environmental Defense Fund

A lake with trees and mountains behind to represent what the Environmental Defense Fund is protecting.

Environmental Defense Fund is one of the world’s largest environmental organisations. Based in the United States, this nonprofit addresses the world’s most pressing environmental challenges that affect our health, ecosystems, oceans and energy use. They believe that partnership is the best method for dealing with climate change and they work with organisations, governments and communities to create a multi-disciplinary approach to protecting our planet. 

4. Friends of the Earth 

A protest in Marble Arch about climate change to demonstrate Friends of the Earth campaigns in the UK.

Working to protect the natural world and everyone in it, the British nonprofit, Friends of the Earth, leads campaigns and provides resources that create real solutions to the environmental challenges facing us all. They have been instrumental in changing environmental laws in the UK. Their most notable climate change campaign to date brought about the historic Climate Change Act in 2008. This law enforced the government to commit to cutting CO2 emissions by 3% year on year. This would mean an 80% cut by 2050. 

READ MORE: Why I Want to be a Responsible Traveller

5. Gold Standard 

Wind turbine on a hill with mountains behind to show that instead of carbon offsetting we should be using renewable energy.

The Gold Standard is an official offset scheme and it’s considered the best. Set up by WWF and other international NGOs, it requires projects to benefit the local population as well as reduce carbon. However, if you choose to offset with Gold Standard it’s worth picking a project that focuses on promoting renewable energies as it tackles the very issue we’re trying to solve: our reliance on fossil fuels. 

READ MORE: 7 Ways To Be an Ethical Traveller

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